Long after the final whistle, the Limerick players and their admiring fans were still out on the pristine sod, absorbing the rays from the still-warm sun but absorbing also the sheer joy, the satisfaction of an epic against-the-odds triumph against the old enemy.
And a triumph it was, a fired-up Limerick doing what they had failed to do against both Tipperary (Munster championship) and Kilkenny (All-Ireland quarter-final) last year and this time, completing the job they had started.
Last year they had led both those games at the break, had held that lead well into the third quarter but then capitulated, overcome by an avalanche of late scores.
Again yesterday they led at the break, 1-7 to 0-7, Seanie Tobin’s opportunist first-time ground-shot past Brendan Cummins (19m) the difference between the sides. Again yesterday they saw that lead whittled away, half-time Tipperary supersub John O’Dwyer slicing them apart with 1-3 as Tipp raced into a four-point lead with only 15 minutes of the second half gone (1-13 to 1-9).
This time though it was different, this was a Limerick team with a new belief, a new self-confidence, a confidence epitomised in full-back and man-of-the-match Richie McCarthy.
“They got the goal last year and we lost the game — this year when they got the goal we bounced back, we got a point straight away. Last year really hurt us, losing in Thurles; we weren’t going to lose in the Gaelic Grounds.”
No they weren’t. O’Dwyer’s goal had come in the 50th minute at the end of a six-point Tipp salvo that was interrupted only by a lone Limerick point, a long-distance score from midfielder and captain Donal O’Grady (one of three on the day from the Ballingarry star). It was the kind of barrage that had done for Limerick last year in those two championship losses but, as noted by Richie, this year Limerick weren’t for folding.
“We learned,” said Richie, “Experience means a lot for this young team.”
It does, but now it’s a winning experience. Nine points to two Limerick outscored Tipperary in the final 20 minutes, nine precious points carved from a Tipperary defence in which corner-backs Michael Cahill and Paddy Stapleton were outstanding, the other defenders — Paul Curran and the half-back trio of Kieran Bergin, Conor O’Mahony and Padraic Maher — not far behind.
Free-taker Declan Hannon had four of those, subs Shane Dowling (2, including a near 100-yd free) and Niall Moran (1) also contributed, as did Tobin and O’Grady.
Defence though was where the game was won, and it started at the very back. Twice in the first half Limerick keeper Nicky Quaid found himself one-on-one at point-blank range with Tipperary attackers; twice Nicky made the save, from Seamus Callanan (14m), then from Pa Bourke (21m). It’s unfair to compare any player to his father but truly, for all those who followed Limerick hurling a generation ago, this was Tommy Quaid at his cat-like gutsy best.
Richie McCarthy we’ve mentioned but alongside him, if Cahill and Stapleton were outstanding for Tipperary at one end, Stephen Walsh and Tom Condon were equally so at the other, though Condon got a right hot few minutes from John O’Dwyer!
The half-back trio, Paudie O’Brien (a few hairy moments of his own on namesake Johno), Wayne McNamara and Gavin O’Mahony, that was the wall on which this Limerick win was founded. They had a few extra bricks in that wall, however.
From the start, Limerick withdrew full-forward Declan Hannon to a half-forward position, leaving the two flyers, Graeme Mulcahy and Seanie Tobin, to forage for themselves inside. Centre-forward James Ryan then withdrew to the next line back and he — along with midfielders Paul Browne and O’Grady — offered great support to the half-back line.
It all meant that a potentially potent Tipperary attack was given less and less space in which to operate, even the normally creative Bonner Maher frustrated time and again.
It’s Limerick’s first Munster championship win since 2007 and puts them in the Munster final. Then they lost to Waterford; this year it will be against the Cork/Clare winner of the other semi-final.
They go into that game with heads up, hopes high.
Scorers for Limerick: D Hannon 0-9 (6f, 0-1 65); S Tobin 1-1; D O’Grady 0-3; S Dowling 0-2 (1f); D Breen, J Ryan, N Moran, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Tipperary: J O’Dwyer 1-3; S Callanan 0-4 (4f); J O’Brien 0-3; E Kelly 0-2 (1f); P Bourke, B Maher, N McGrath, 0-1 each.
Limerick: N Quaid; S Walsh, R McCarthy, T Condon; P O’Brien, W McNamara, G O’Mahony; P Browne, D O’Grady (c); D Breen, J Ryan, S Hickey; G Mulcahy, D Hannon, S Tobin.
Subs for Limerick: C Allis (Breen 42); S Dowling (Hickey 49); N Moran (Tobin 62); C King (Browne 66); K Downes (Ryan 69).
Tipperary: B Cummins; P Stapleton, P Curran, M Cahill; K Bergin, C O’Mahony, Padraic Maher; S McGrath (c), B Maher; P Bourke, Patrick Maher, J O’Brien; S Bourke, S Callanan, N McGrath.
Subs for Tipperary: J O’Dwyer (S Bourke 35); E Kelly (P Bourke 44); B O’Meara (Callanan 50); C O’Brien (S McGrath 64); L Corbett (B Maher 67).
Referee: B Gavin (Offaly).